Translating Gombrowicz's Pornografia: an interview with Danuta Borchardt

by Luke Sykora

Witold Gombrowicz's fiction is hyperactive, grotesque, philosophical, juvenile, lyrical, serious, ironic, existential, and confrontational—in other words, it harnesses just about every technique that a fiction writer could hope to master. Milan Kundera called Gombrowicz one of the greatest writers of the last century, and Gombrowicz was a central influence on North America's latest writer-in-translation darling, Roberto Bolaño.

English language readers who have been lucky enough to pick up and enjoy Gombrowicz in the last ten years probably have Danuta Borchardt to thank. A former psychiatrist and a native of Poland, Danuta Borchardt has translated three Gombrowicz novels into English during the past decade: Cosmos,Ferdydurke (for which she won the 2001 National Translation Award) and, most recently, Pornografia (Grove/Atlantic, $23). Astoundingly, this was the first time that Pornografia—Gombrowicz's penultimate novel, which tells the story of two adult men sharing a bizarre erotic obsession with a pair of Polish country youths in the midst of World War II—has been translated directly from the original Polish (a previous English version was based on a French translation).

Borchardt's own short fiction has been published in Exquisite Corpse, and her translations of the poetry of Cyprian Norwid have appeared in The Green Integer Review, The Dirty Goat, and Salmagundi. I spoke with Danuta Borchardt about her new translation of Pornografia, as well as the unique challenges and rewards of reading and translating Gombrowicz's fiction.

Luke Sykora: Pornografia is the third novel by Witold Gombrowicz you've translated. What is it that attracts you to Gombrowicz's work, and why do you think it's important that contemporary English readers read him?

Danuta Borchardt: My attraction to Gombrowicz’s work evolved quite fortuitously. Since the 1980s I have been writing my own short fiction in English. At some point I attended a seminar led by Andrei Codrescu, who had already published a few of my pieces in his journal Exquisite Corpse. During that seminar, Andrei talked about his favorite Polish writers: Bruno Schulz, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, and Witold Gombrowicz. I happened to have at home Gombrowicz’s novel Cosmos (in Polish), and I began reading it. It struck me how beautiful it would be when translated into English, and I decided to try my hand at it, even though I had never translated anything before. I felt that both my surrealistic bent and my somewhat idiosyncratic style were in synchrony with those of Gombrowicz. I admired his down-to-earth attitude toward life and literature. He did not mince words. He was an iconoclast.

As far as his relevance, there is a striking passage in Ferdydurke: “the face of the 20th century, the century of all centuries gone mad.” And this is even before the subsequent horrors of World War II. Or: “Tut, tut, as everyone knows, mankind needs myths—it chooses this one or that one from among its numerous authors (but who can ever explore or shed light on the course that such a choice has taken?)” Gombrowicz is talking here about authors, but it applies to any modern-day myth-making. His importance for the contemporary reader also lies in his place in 20th-century thinking and literature—he was a forerunner of the existential movement in Europe (Ferdydurke was written a year before Sartre’s Nausea). Pornografia missed, by a narrow margin, the prestigious International Editors Prize for Literature in 1966, but his novel Cosmos won it the following year. In 1968, Gombrowicz was a runner-up for the Nobel Prize.

LS: What makes Pornografia unique, compared to Gombrowicz's other novels?

DB: Pornografia focuses, perhaps more than his other three novels, on the outer limits of the imagination—on the “forbidden”—on the erotic fantasies of middle age and on living them through the young, and on manipulations that influence the young to the point of crime and murder.

Also, in Pornografia Gombrowicz tests the notion of belief in God versus non-belief. According to Jerzy Jarzębski, one of Gombrowicz’s foremost scholars: “Pornografia is blasphemous in the sense that it presents traditional culture and national customs in a state of exhaustion and atrophy.” Jarzębski, suggests that Gombrowicz’s ideas may originate from the existentialists’ “death of God,” from old age generally, from World War II and the demands it placed on Polish society, and from the collapse of moral values.

LS: You mention Gombrowicz's response to Polish traditional or national culture. What did mainstream Polish culture at the time mean for Gombrowicz, and why was he so frustrated by it?

DB: This comes up in most of his writings. When he was writing Ferdydurke, the Polish psyche was steeped, after 150 years of occupation by foreign powers, in newly regained freedom. He was reacting to the glorifying of national heroes, artists, etc., the nation forgetting perhaps that a lot of work was yet to be done at the level of improving the lives of ordinary citizens. Understandable, but perhaps exaggerated, because a lot was achieved in the twenty years of independence between the two World Wars. In his short story “The Memoirs of Stefan Czarniecki,” Gombrowicz bemoans the rising enthusiasm for nationalism and for yet another war that was approaching and that was to destroy Poland again. In Pornografia, he expresses weariness with such war mentality. Trans-Atlantyk, written in Argentina, is a satire on the Polish émigré society in Argentina. But this is only on the surface, because he addresses the larger issues of Poland’s inability to carve for herself an existence on the larger geopolitical arena. “Go, go, again and be killed” he says in effect to his compatriots returning from Argentina to Europe at the outbreak of World War II. He also makes fun of the Polish character in its adherence to outdated social mores such as duels—which, by the way, were no longer taking place in 20th-century Poland—and to name-dropping, to “do you know who I am?” posturing. As I’m saying all this, it becomes apparent, I think, that all these concerns and, most important of all, his recognition of the stupidity and futility of wars as a way of solving problems, apply to all, not only Polish, societies.

LS: Pornografia is set in World War II, but the war is mostly a distant backdrop for the central action. The only major war-related character is a Polish resistance fighter, and he is painted in a fairly unflattering light. Why do you think Gombrowicz chose to set this novel during World War II?

DB: Gombrowicz himself addresses this in the “Information” section of Pornografia (a sort of preface): “Pornografia takes place in the Poland of the war years. Why? Partly because the atmosphere of war is most appropriate for it. Partly because it is very Polish—and perhaps it was initially conceived on the model of a cheap novel in the manner of Rodziewiczówna or Zarzycka (did this similarity disappear in its subsequent adaptation?) And partly just to be contrary—to suggest to the nation that its womb can accommodate conflicts, dramas, ideas other than those already theoretically established.”

I might add that although World War II is a “distant backdrop,” there are ominous foreshadowings to some of the action. Placing the first scene, the café scene, smack in the middle of the German occupation (1943), the fear of the general situation that Hipolit expresses in his invitation to Witold to visit him in the country . . . Perhaps it is easier for those who have gone through a war to sense this “backdrop” of danger than for those who have not.

LS: You were born in Poland, and came to the West as a refugee during World War II. How closely can you relate to the world of the Polish countryside that Gombrowicz depicts in Pornografia? Does it seem familiar, or alien, or maybe somewhere in between?

DB: I relate to the Polish countryside very closely—it is totally familiar to me. As a child, I spent a couple of summers (1938 and 1939) at my grandparent’s country place near Wilno (then Polish, now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania). I remember those times as some of the happiest of my childhood. For example, my father taking me by the hand and leading me to a swamp area that he wanted, some day, to convert into a pond. Of course this never happened because of the outbreak of World War II.

LS: Pornografia depicts two adult men sharing a bizarre obsession with the erotic feelings of the adolescents in their midst. But compared to many other novels, Pornografia doesn't seem very pornographic at all, in the sense of overt depictions of sexuality. Why do you think Gombrowicz titled the novel Pornografia? What, if anything, is “pornographic” about the novel?

DB: The title is somewhat of a teaser. To quote Gombrowicz again: “At that time [he is talking about 1953] it wasn’t such a bad title, today, in view of the excess of pornography, it sounds banal, and in a few languages it was changed to Seduction.” Anyway, Gombrowicz does not consider his novel as solely a voyeuristic exercise, but more as a vehicle for dealing with wider issues.

LS: Why do you think Witold Gombrowicz decided to have Pornografia narrated by a character named “Witold Gombrowicz”?

DB: All of Gombrowicz’s works are narrated this way. Some might consider it a mark of his egocentricity (for example, his Diary, a series of magnificent essays on philosophy, art, literature, politics, etc., begins: “Monday—I. Tuesday—I. Wednesday—I. Thursday—I.”) But this would be a facile interpretation. It is more germane to say that Gombrowicz wants to show us—in a very direct way and not through third-person characters—what we are as human beings, as individuals, with all our frailties, all our evil thoughts and deeds, and how to free ourselves from our shackles. He is a master at making the elegant distinction between Gombrowicz the author, the narrator, and the character.

Gombrowicz puts forward the idea of the “individual” first inFerdydurke, in his argument that it’s the “brat” in us, the immature part, which is the springboard for our creativity. Also, in the philosophical passages where he urges us to be true to ourselves: “the most important is not: to die for ideas, styles, theses, slogans, beliefs; and also not: to solidify and enclose ourselves in them; but something different, it is this: to step back a pace and secure a distance from everything that unendingly happens to us.” The philosophical passages in Ferdydurke are particularly worthy of attention in this respect. Secondly, in Trans-Atlantyk, as well as in his other works, he shies away from the idea of being primarily a Pole, not a very popular idea with the closed-minded. One should be first and foremost an individual, a human being.

LS: Gombrowicz's writing can sometimes be purposefully amateurish and goofy. He seems uncomfortable with the traditionally “classical” understanding of beauty and art, involving balance, proportion, elegance, and the like. As you translate him, is there ever a temptation to sanitize is prose, to tone down his more exuberant and idiosyncratic tendencies?

DB: Writing in a purposefully “amateurish” and “goofy” manner is the very essence of Gombrowicz’s style. It is his way, I think, of showing the struggle between Form and Chaos, two of his most important philosophical categories. One might view his “goofiness” as a way of letting go of established norms in writing. Also, since this style makes his prose so lively and vibrant, it is so important, and often difficult, to convey it in English. However, one cannot deny that many passages in his novels are also written in absolutely beautiful poetic prose, and I keep hearing remarks to this effect about the translations. This is not, I can assure you, due to any manipulation of his language on my part. And no, I am never tempted to sanitize his prose or tone down his idiosyncrasies. As a matter of fact, when I must choose among several options I go for the most extreme, as long as it is true to the original, and as long as the English language can tolerate it. Since language is so vital in Gombrowicz’s work, translating it from other languages did not work, and hence there was the need for re-translating it directly from the Polish.

LS: There are indeed a lot of incredibly lyrical passages in Gombrowicz. I think that's one of the most challenging but also interesting and unique things about reading his work—at one moment he can be playing the buffoon, and the next moment he is a poet.

DB: I absolutely agree. And Gombrowicz was also adept at using various Polish vernaculars, when the occasion called for it: the usual language, "intelligentsia" language, peasant language, Leon's crazy language, and, of course, Gombrowicz's own language. The apogee of this occurs in Trans-Atlantyk, and there was a special reason for this. The novel is a tragicomedy. Gombrowicz wrote it at a time when he was deeply troubled by the war, his country being destroyed, his family and friends in terrible danger. Yet here he was, in Argentina, away from it all, and helpless. He decided that, in order to gain distance as a writer, he would write something in a language removed from his time. So he wrote it in 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century Polish, as well as in the language of Polish peasants who had emigrated to Argentina at the break of the 19th and 20th centuries. These older varieties are not greatly removed from present-day Polish, but they would be in the English language. You can imagine what a formidable task this is for a translator!

LS: What about the languages themselves? Are there any significant challenges in translating Gombrowicz's Polish into English?

DB: The challenges are enormous. The clearest is the issue of verbs; in Polish, verbs can be omitted without loss of meaning. This makes it necessary to insert them where Gombrowicz does not. Omission of verbs in English is occasionally acceptable in colloquial language, or as a literary device, but not as a norm. Another problem is Gombrowicz’s overuse of diminutives, which hardly exist in English. Gombrowicz does this to accentuate the artificiality and pomposity that many Poles indulge in as they’re speaking. The most prominent issue is Gombrowicz’s introduction of an unusual use of idioms and his creation of neologisms. Some of these have entered into the Polish vocabulary. In all these respects,Ferdydurke was the most difficult to translate. But Trans-Atlantyk was also difficult, according to the author himself, and as I mentioned earlier.

LS: Is it difficult to translate humor from one language to another?

DB: Yes, because it is so strongly ingrained in local cultural and social mores. However, if one is attuned to it in the original, the equivalents can be found in the target language. I feel strongly that a translator must be endowed with an innate sense of humor to pull this off.

LS: This brings up the issue of context—Gombrowicz's sense of humor, his satire, sometimes targets elements of mid-century Polish culture that most modern American readers are probably not familiar with. Many readers are probably more familiar with Shakespeare's England—or maybe even Dante's Florence—than with Gombrowicz's Poland, which I imagine is an added challenge when it comes to translating him.

DB: I think I touched on this earlier, for example: the everyday lingo with diminutives, the puffing up, the name-dropping, the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, the “I must defend my honor” kind of posturing, all of which are satirized in Trans-Atlantyk, and also the nationalist ideology and concomitant hero-worship (among ourselves and among foreigners: “Chopin was Polish, we have Marie Curie-Skłodowska,” etc., etc.). Actually, I don’t think these present challenges in translating Gombrowicz, it’s the particular language that he uses to convey them that poses difficulties in making them sound humorous. For example, he uses a lot of idioms that, Poland being (and having been at his time even more so) primarily an agricultural society, originate from nature (land, animals). These don’t quite work in English.

LS: Gombrowicz had been living in Argentina for almost thirty years by the time he wrote Pornografia.Why didn't he write it in Spanish?

DB: Gombrowicz was not Joseph Conrad, who became immersed in a foreign language when he was about seventeen. Although Gombrowicz has learned Spanish to some degree, he had already become a seasoned writer in Polish (short stories, Ferdydurke, a couple of plays, Diary, Trans-Atlantyk) by the time he was writing Pornografia, his penultimate novel.

I can say from personal experience that it is very difficult to be a writer in a foreign language. I began learning English when I was about thirteen, and it took me a long time and practice, practice, practice, to attain a somewhat literary level. Although I have Polish “in my gut,” it would take an extraordinary amount of work for me to write in literary Polish. For one thing, I don’t live in Polish society, I’m not surrounded by the language. Although I keep up with the changes that are occurring in the language through reading and occasional visits to Poland, these are not the mainsprings that a writer needs. You might say that Czesław Miłosz wrote poetry in Polish while living in the U.S. but, again, he was a mature writer when he arrived here. There is also, for me, something special in the English language: I like what I consider its simplicity, its logic, its unconvoluted grammar. God forbid trying to write in German with its grammar and undending words! Yet I know Polish well enough to understand its (and Gombrowicz’s) nuances. My parents (and I in my childhood) grew up on it.

LS: Has spending so much time with Gombrowicz's prose influenced your own experience of reading and writing fiction?

DB: The reverse happened. It was my experience of writing fiction, as well as reading (Cheever, Barth, Barthelme, Beckett’s novels), that led me to spend so much time with Gombrowicz. Also, it was not only his prose but the process of translating it that has led me to know English better has and influenced my writing. Writing and translating are cross-pollinating processes. Had I been a writer in Polish, Gombrowicz might have influenced my writing, but I’m not sure. What is quite certain is that he had an influence on such South American writers as Cortazár and Bolaño.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010
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